[From "'What Must Not be Said': North and South and the Problem of Women's Work," by Catherine Barnes Stevenson, Professor of English, University of Hartford.]

North and South is frequently praised for its "realism in depicting the strike in Milton North which was based on the actual labor conflict in Preston in 1858-54 (Carnall; Dutton and King). In their study of the Preston strike, Dutton and King comment that North and South is "more realistic" than Hard Times; moreover, "it has also more to say about strikes and certainly draws on newspaper accounts of the events in Preston" (199).

That "realism" breaks down in one significant particular: in Preston 55.8% of the factory labor force consisted of females over the age of 13. . One contemporary estimate placed the number of women involved in the Preston lockout at 11,800, while the number of men was approximately half that — 6200 (14-15; 94). Consequently, the majority of the strikers, although not of the strike leaders, was female. Given her familiarity with other specific details of that strike (at least one incident in the novel closely parallels an account in The Times of London) and her close involvement with the working people of Manchester, it is highly unlikely that Gaskell was ignorant of the gender composition of the work force. Yet, the only woman factory worker who appears in the novel is Bessy Higgins, and she has been forced to leave work because of lung disease contracted in the carding room.

Why did Gaskell shrink that female majority into a solitary disabled worker? One might say that she is simply participating in a general silence in Victorian fiction about women's work in the factories. According to Wanda Neff, the unpropitious appearance of the factory girl and the strangeness of her labor to the middle-class reader made her unpopular as the heroine of a novel (85). But Gaskell's silence about women's work in the mills, her repeated use of the generic "men" to describe factory workers, and her celebration of cooperative domestic labor indicate how problematic she — like other members of the Victorian middle class — found the whole issue of women's work outside the home.

From the 1830s on, the working woman was the center of an ideological battle in Victorian culture. Social reformers pointed repeatedly to the negative consequences of women's work in the factories (Gallagher; Smelser), which some claimed was responsible for the moral "degradation" of the female worker and her children, as well as for the disintegration of family life and domestic comfort. Moreover, in the 1 850s, according to Dorothy Thompson, working-class women began to re-define their "place in society" by "accept[ing] an image of themselves which involved both home-centeredness and inferiority" (137; see also Alexander). Dutton and King put it another way: in the labor disputes at Preston and Blackburn "despite their massive numerical preponderance among the turnouts, women played a very subordinate role.... Their fundamental ambition was to secure the right not to work" (52). If Thompson's analysis is correct then North and South seems to have appeared at the historical moment of the triumph of domestic ideology. Its author's struggle with that ideology determines the text's silence about women's non-domestic labor, whether as mill workers or as writers.

Victorian Web Overview Elizabeth Gaskell North and South

Created c.1994; last modified 25 March 2000